Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gallows humour and searching questions

Economist Paul Krugman shows the lighter side of the dull science in his ditty:
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
Not with a bang but with bunga-bunga.

Gallows humour is essential in a time of crisis. The Nobel Price winning economist puts his finger (maybe unwittingly) on something important - that in the midst of all the necessary focus on numbers, there is a serious moral dimension to this crisis.

There is a tiny group of people around the world who have seen their wealth rise exponentially during the last decade - even while economies have been crashing and burning. In some ways Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul, billionaire, playboy, party-thrower, is a symbol and symptom of a moral failure at the heart of the financial catastrophe.

When I read about him, I think about the prophet Micah describing the glitterati of his day in these words - brought vividly to life in the Message translation (6:10-16):

"Do you expect me to overlook obscene wealth
   you've piled up by cheating and fraud?
Do you think I'll tolerate shady deals
   and shifty scheming?
I'm tired of the violent rich
   bullying their way with bluffs and lies.
I'm fed up. Beginning now, you're finished.
   You'll pay for your sins down to your last cent.
No matter how much you get, it will never be enough—
   hollow stomachs, empty hearts.
No matter how hard you work, you'll have nothing to show for it—
   bankrupt lives, wasted souls.
You'll plant grass
   but never get a lawn.
You'll make jelly
   but never spread it on your bread.
You'll press apples
   but never drink the cider.
You have lived by the standards of your king, Omri,
   the decadent lifestyle of the family of Ahab.
Because you've slavishly followed their fashions,
   I'm forcing you into bankruptcy.
Your way of life will be laughed at, a tasteless joke.
   Your lives will be derided as futile and fake."

Berlusconi is a joke and yet he's the epitome of the lifestyle our culture lauds and apes. And we will all pay the price of his folly and the folly of the one per cent of the world who live like him. But the joke could also be on us who have lived by the mantra 'there by the grace of the market, it could have been me...'

But Micah tells us how we should live:

[God's] already made it plain how to live, what to do,
   what God is looking for in men and women.
It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour,
   be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don't take yourself too seriously—
   take God seriously.

And he goes on to remind us 'Attention! God calls out to the city! If you know what's good for you, you'll listen. So listen, all of you! This is serious business.'

I think the market makers know how serious this is - with bond yields for Italy above a crisis level 7% and stock markets falling. But I wonder if we do. Do we believe there is a technical fix that means we can return to business as usual? Or do we need to  ask more searching questions about the kind of economy, the kind of politics we need to ensure justice and equity for all the world's citizens?

For all its incoherence, the Occupy movement suggests that there are growing numbers of ordinary people from all walks of life who are beginning to ask for a better way. Where are the leaders rising to this challenge, harnessing this energy, articulating this cry for change?

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